Congress set to rescind COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops

WASHINGTON (AP) — The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the U.S. navy can be rescinded beneath the annual protection invoice heading for a vote this week in Congress, ending a directive that helped make sure the overwhelming majority of troops have been vaccinated but additionally raised considerations that it harmed recruitment and retention.

Republicans, emboldened by their new Home majority subsequent yr, pushed the hassle, which was confirmed Tuesday night time when the invoice was unveiled. Home GOP chief Kevin McCarthy personally lobbied President Joe Biden in a gathering final week to roll again the mandate.

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the rating Republican on the Home Armed Companies Committee, mentioned the elimination of the vaccination requirement was important for the protection coverage invoice to maneuver ahead.

“We’ve actual recruitment and retention issues throughout all companies. This was gasoline on the hearth exacerbating our current drawback,” Rogers mentioned. “And the president mentioned, you understand, the pandemic is over. It’s time for us to acknowledge that and take away this pointless coverage.”

White Home press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre mentioned Monday that Biden informed McCarthy he would contemplate lifting the mandate however Protection Secretary Lloyd Austin had beneficial or not it’s stored.

“I’d remind all of you that the Pentagon has a variety of vaccines it has lengthy required,” Jean-Pierre mentioned Monday. “So that is nothing new.”

The vaccine provision is without doubt one of the extra acrimonious variations within the annual protection invoice that the Home is trying to wrap up this week and ship to the Senate. It units coverage and gives a roadmap for future investments. It’s one of many remaining payments Congress is predicted to approve earlier than adjourning, so lawmakers are keen to connect their prime priorities to it.

Service members and the Protection Division’s civilian workforce would get a 4.6% pay improve, in keeping with a abstract of the invoice launched Tuesday night time. The laws additionally requires a overview of the speed of suicide within the Armed Forces since Sept. 11, 2001, damaged down by service, occupational specialty and grade. It additionally requires the protection secretary to rescind the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Army leaders acknowledge that the vaccine requirement is considered one of a number of components contributing to their recruiting struggles. It might dissuade some younger individuals from enlisting, however officers don’t know what number of. This yr the Military missed its recruiting aim by about 25%, whereas the opposite companies scraped by.

The explanations, nevertheless, are advanced. Two years of the pandemic shut off recruiters’ entry to colleges and occasions the place they discover prospects, and on-line recruiting was solely marginally profitable. Discovering recruits is made harder by the continuing nationwide labor scarcity and the truth that solely about 23% of younger individuals can meet the navy’s health, academic and ethical necessities — with many disqualified for medical points, felony data, tattoos and different issues.

A congressional aide acquainted with the negotiations however not approved to talk publicly mentioned lawmakers supportive of the vaccine mandate concluded that it had achieved what it was supposed to do by reaching a excessive price of vaccination all through the service branches, and that assembly the Republican calls for to rescind it will permit different priorities to advance.

The mandate was enacted by means of an August 2021 memorandum from Austin. It directed the secretaries of the assorted navy branches to start full vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces on energetic obligation or within the Nationwide Guard or Reserve. They haven’t been required to additionally obtain boosters.

Requested in regards to the matter over the weekend, Austin informed reporters he nonetheless helps the vaccine for U.S. troops.

“We misplaced one million individuals to this virus,” Austin mentioned. “1,000,000 individuals died in america of America. We misplaced lots of in DoD. So this mandate has stored individuals wholesome.”

As of early this month, about 99% of the active-duty troops within the Navy, Air Drive and Marine Corps had been vaccinated, and 98% of the Military. Service members who are usually not vaccinated are usually not allowed to deploy, notably sailors or Marines on ships. There could also be a couple of exceptions to that, based mostly on non secular or different exemptions and the duties of the service member.

The vaccination numbers for the Guard and Reserve are decrease, however usually all are greater than 90%.

Greater than 8,000 active-duty service members have been discharged for failure to obey a lawful order once they refused the vaccine.

The Marine Corps, which is way smaller than the Military, Navy and Air Drive, vastly outpaces them within the variety of troops discharged, with 3,717 as of early this month. The Military – the biggest service — has discharged greater than 1,800, whereas greater than 1,600 have been pressured out by the Navy and 834 by the Air Drive. The Air Drive numbers embrace the House Drive.

The navy companies got here beneath fireplace over the previous yr for approving solely a restricted variety of non secular exemptions to the vaccine requirement.

Army leaders have argued that troops for many years have been required to get as many as 17 vaccines to be able to keep the well being of the power, notably these deploying abroad. Recruits arriving on the navy academies or at primary coaching get a routine of photographs on their first day — reminiscent of measles, mumps and rubella — in the event that they aren’t already vaccinated. And so they routinely get flu photographs within the fall.

Service leaders have mentioned that the variety of troops who requested non secular or different exemptions to any of these required vaccines — previous to the COVID pandemic — has been negligible.

The politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine, nevertheless, triggered an onslaught of exemption requests from troops. As many as 16,000 non secular exemptions have been or are nonetheless pending, and solely about 190 have been authorized. Small numbers of short-term and everlasting medical exemptions have additionally been granted.

Home Majority Chief Steny Hoyer, D-Md., mentioned the Protection Division made a rational determination in requiring a vaccine as a result of “vaccines are the way in which you retain a group secure.” However on the finish of the day, the invoice must have bipartisan help to go.

“It appears to be very controversial amongst Republicans particularly. I’m undecided precisely why. Possibly it’s simply because the federal government is telling them that that you must do that,” Hoyer mentioned.

“Clearly,” he added, “the extra individuals you’ve effectively at any given time, the higher off you might be in responding instantly, however there’s substantial sentiment on the opposite facet of the aisle, which we want within the Senate, that believes in another way, so we could need to compromise.”

McCarthy mentioned that whereas he applauded the top of the mandate, the Biden administration should do extra. He mentioned the Biden administration “should right service data” and never stand in the way in which of reenlisting any service member discharged for not taking the COVID vaccine.

The protection invoice will help as much as about $858 billion in spending. Inside this topline, the laws authorizes almost $817 billion for the Division of Protection and greater than $30 billion for nationwide safety packages inside the Division of Vitality.

The invoice gives funding that’s about $45 billion above the president’s finances request to handle the results of inflation, present further safety help to Ukraine and speed up different DoD priorities.


Related Press employees author Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.